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War beneath the surface: the building of a submarine

Running Critical: The Silent War, Rickover, and General Dynamics, by Patrick Tyler. New York: Harper & Row. 374 pp. $19.95. NEWS coverage of the sinking of a Soviet nuclear submarine on Oct. 6 brought a brief flare of publicity to a facet of military activity generally shielded from public view. ``Running Critical'' provides further insight into this little-known aspect of naval warfare. The principal characters -- a Polish-American who becomes one of the United States Navy's most powerful and controversial admirals; a smooth-talking Southern gentleman who rises to chairman of the board of a giant defense corporation; and an ambitious Greek immigrant with a hard-nosed approach to managing shipyards -- are portrayed vividly against the backdrop of high-powered Washington politics and corporate intrigue.

But Patrick Tyler's story is not a script for an upcoming TV miniseries. It is a searching investigation into events surrounding the design and construction of the Navy's Los Angeles class nuclear attack submarines.

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The book's protagonists, as described by Tyler, include:

Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, brilliant nuclear engineer, consummate military politician, and petty tyrant -- with a curious penchant for baubles such as gold-plated fruit knives and Tiffany paperweights, provided by businessmen anxious to curry favor.

David Lewis, chairman of General Dynamics, a man obsessed with the need to make a personal triumph of his tenure at the top of a giant corporation, even if success meant bowing and scraping before the hot-tempered admiral.

P. Takis Veliotis, a manager as tough as any of his shipyard workers (and a man in whom Rickover more than met his match), who fled the United States amid allegations of graft and corruption.

The popular image of Rickover is that of a visionary iconoclast who dragged the Navy kicking and screaming into the nuclear age. But the true genesis of the nuclear Navy was a 1946 Naval Research Laboratory proposal prepared under the guidance of the highly respected physicist Philip H. Abelson.

The Navy's Bureau of Ships liked the idea and, with the strong support of then chief of naval operations, Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, sent a team of engineering officers to the Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear laboratories to learn more about this new power source. The leader of that team was a talented, outspoken captain named Rickover.

Congress took a special liking to the maverick naval officer and by the mid-1960s had elevated him to a position of power in the Atomic Energy Commission, a civilian office outside the checks and balances normally imposed on military officers. It is at this point that Tyler's book picks up the saga.

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In 1968, US intelligence realized that design improvements had given Soviet submarines a substantial speed advantage over US nuclear submarines, an edge that might be vital in combat. At the time, Rickover was perfecting a new, safer, very powerful reactor that he was eager to send to sea.

Capitalizing on congressional concern over the speed disparity, the admiral pushed for a new submarine design to incorporate the new reactor, a propulsion system too large and heavy for existing US submarines.

With the help of powerful congressional backers, the admiral brushed aside Pentagon concerns that quietness, improved weapons systems, and the ability to dive deeply were also critical features for a new ship. The Navy was forced to support a single prototype of Rickover's new submarine; an experiment the wily admiral turned easily into a full-blown program in 1969.

In the aftermath of Rickover's political triumph, nobody was able to refocus attention on two flaws in what became the new 688 class submarine: to accommodate the size of the new reactor, the submarine was so large that the overall speed improvement was marginal; to offset the great weight of the new power plant, the steel of the submarine's hull was pared so thin that the 688 class could not dive as deeply as comparable Soviet submarines.

During the Nixon administration, neither of these concerns slowed the Rickover juggernaut. What did cause a five-year delay in commissioning the first of the new submarines, in 1976, was sloppy workmanship by General Dynamics and acrimonious legal wrangling between the company and the Navy over who should pay the resulting cost overruns.

When the Reagan administration took office, Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman Jr. engineered an agreement in which General Dynamics dropped its claims against the Navy in exchange for additional submarine contracts.

Rickover vehemently opposed this compromise, at least in part because of his running feud with Mr. Veliotis, General Dynamics' shipyard manager and one of the few men the admiral could not intimidate. Approval of the agreement, despite his protests, signaled the end of Rickover's controversial 60-year career.

With Rickover out of the way, construction of 688 class submarines might have been halted. But shutting down construction of an existing, well-funded program, and beginning the design and political groundwork for a new class of submarines (a 10-year process at best) was not compatible with the Reagan administration's planned rapid buildup to a 600-ship Navy.

The 688 class is now in construction in two shipyards, with more than 60 of the submarines planned. Virtually all independent comparisons of the capabilities of the Los Angeles-class submarine and its Soviet counterparts give the edge to the Soviets in speed and diving depth. Only in the areas of quietness (generally agreed to be equal) and in weapons systems (edge to the US) is there any serious debate.

On the surface, ``Running Critical'' is yet another narrative of the failings of the military-industrial complex, of its budget manipulations and high-stakes politics. But Tyler's real story is about intelligent, successful men corrupted by a lust for power -- an ancient theme -- recounted in a lively fashion in a thoroughly modern setting.

The book has its flaws. The author often seems reluctant to accept his role as objective reporter, standing aside to let the story tell itself. He seems overly eager to describe his work as an investigative reporter and to share his personal impressions of the central characters.

Tyler is also a bit too glib. When, for example, he describes the workings of US intelligence agencies in their attempts to assess the Soviet submarine fleet, he breezily describes processes whose capabilities -- and especially, limitations -- he appears not to understand.

The value of ``Running Critical'' is the straightforward way it pokes one more hole in the myth that military hardware is always acquired to meet carefully assessed national priorities, at costs justified by military necessity.

Tyler presents a compelling picture of a system out of control, dominated by powerful men with their own personal agendas. The result in this case is a class of US nuclear submarines that is safe, adequate for peacetime patrol and maintaining the numerical balance of forces with the Soviets, but far less capable than it could or should be if the tocsin sounds the call to arms in earnest.

Monitor operations editor Fred Glaeser is a recently retired US Navy commander. He served in the Pentagon for 3 years.

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